Engineering the Future

One of the qualities that sets RMBL apart from other field stations is its knack for encouraging multidisciplinary collaborations among scientists. Think of Dr. David Inouye’s over 50-year-old flower phenology project and the research that has sprouted from it, such as Dr. Rebecca Irwin’s study of native bees and Dr. Aimee Classen’s research on root phenology and soil processes.

But why stop there? Why not explore the possibilities of mixing disciplines like computer science, mechanical engineering, and biological sciences to solve some of today’s most pressing issues? That’s the mission of Dr. Jenifer Blacklock. She’s the director of the Western Colorado University – Colorado University Boulder partnership. This summer she’ll oversee collaborative projects created by WCU/CU Boulder and RMBL in which mechanical and computer science undergraduates will design and develop tools to help researchers gather more highly detailed measurements of the area’s ecosystems.

Engineering fuels science

Dr. Blacklock says that these collaborations are taking science and engineering to the next level. One project involves developing an advanced sensor suite that analyzes the land surface energy balance, in other words, things like incoming and outgoing radiation, soil temperature, heat flux, air temperature, humidity, wind speed, and precipitation. By providing comprehensive insights into the complex dynamics of surface energy exchange, the system will deepen our understanding of environmental and climate processes.

Another project aims to develop a snowpack measurement device that detects how well mountain snowpack bears the weight of animals. Because it mimics nature’s own methods of adaptability, it can revolutionize snowpack measurement techniques for researchers.

One of the computer science projects is designed to measure the leaf area index, which means the amount of leaf surface area in a given tract of land. Leaf surface area is a key variable that controls how ecosystems store carbon and use water. So knowing how this measurement varies across different landscapes, seasons, and vegetation can help scientists understand how the Earth’s ecosystems are responding to environmental change.

Leaping forward

Putting biological and natural scientists together with engineering and computer scientists is a whole new ball game, according to Dr. Blacklock. She believes it enables groundbreaking research that may not be happening anywhere else. What this research could result in is getting better predictive models of the climate and environment.

With improved predictive modeling, the sky’s the limit for how it can be used. For communities, you can map forest composition and structure to predict how forest fires could travel. You could also make predictive models of snowmelt, delivering critical information to water resource managers.

Women welcome

Another area of progress Dr. Blacklock finds exciting is increasing the number of women in engineering. Studies show that it’s in middle school when girls decide whether or not they ‘can become’ an engineer. Based on this research, the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering at Western CU developed a middle school engineering program for the summer. It consists of fun, hands-on, outdoor engineering projects that expose kids to different aspects of engineering. The goal is to make engineering exciting for girls, especially. There are courses on outdoor rescue engineering and other topics women are drawn to.

Rady also launches clubs and organizations in Gunnison schools to make engineering a friendlier subject. Lego robotics clubs, drone clubs, and other activities help kids understand that engineering is, Dr. Blacklock says, “not just getting under the hood of your car, but it’s being creative and helping the world become a better place.”

If kids learn early that anyone can be an engineer, then more women will see themselves as engineers. They can also see the value of engineering in solving social problems and improving the lives of individuals. Rady will launch a biomedical engineering degree in 2025 that will partner with the adaptive sports center in Crested Butte. The idea is to design and develop devices and sports gear that will allow those with impairments to do things they did not think were possible.

Projects that are human-centric are those most likely to bring women into the field. By this measure, Dr. Blacklock is not only helping engineering and science merge into a superpower for good. She is also changing the face of engineering itself.

 

With over a decade of engineering curriculum and industry experience, Jeni Blacklock holds dual B.S. degrees from Miami University in Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management, an M.S. degree in Biomedical Engineering, and a PhD. from Max Planck Institute in Germany. As a National Research Council Fellow at NIST, she worked in Boulder, Colorado, before becoming a Teaching Professor at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. There, she focused on hands-on education and innovation, with many initiatives funded through multimillion dollar NSF grants. Transitioning to CU-Boulder, Jeni helped launch the Student Experiential Education initiative, integrating real-world industry and practical experiences into the mechanical engineering degree program. Returning to Mines, Jeni helped launch the Advanced Manufacturing program as co-principal investigator on a $2M NSF-PEER grant for workforce development. Returning to CU Boulder in 2020, Jeni launched the WCU/CU Boulder partnership program in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science, with the first cohort of students graduating in May 2023. Jeni lives in Crested Butte with her husband and two boys.